For most people, a diagnosis of cancer marks a sentinel event in theirs and their family’s lifetime. But these are no longer ordinary times. A pandemic like COVID 19 is a once in a century event for which no amount of planning can help completely overcome the obstacles to optimum health care delivery.
The primary question on every patient’s mind during this pandemic is what constitutes a medical emergency and is there any risk of contracting COVID 19 infection during a hospital visit. Various regulatory bodies across the world have issued advisories saying that patients who might be suffering from curative cancers like leukaemia, lymphoma and germ cell tumours should not delay in seeking treatment. Even patients with these conditions who are already on chemotherapy must not delay their scheduled chemo cycles as the risk of disease progression is too high compared to the risk of contracting the COVID 19 infection. It is true that cancer patients have compromised immune systems and are more likely to be susceptible to infections. However the decision on postponing therapy has to be done on a case by case basis by the treating oncologist, so patients are encouraged to consult their oncologist rather than let fear cloud unilateral decision making.
The second issue is what extra precautions that patients who are already on chemotherapy need to take. General instructions include home quarantine measures, minimalizing social contact, use of hand sanitizers and frequent hand washing with soap and water. Patients should also try to make routines and nurture good habits during this lockdown period.
Step 1: Focus on a new habit like writing or learning music or cooking. It helps in preventing the mind from going astray. We need to give at least a couple of weeks for any new habit to develop and we need to work towards it every day.
Step 2: Do not neglect the importance of physical activity during this period. Physical activity will ensure that the body stays fit and at the same time lead to release of chemicals called endorphins which will also elevate mood and improve mental health. Physical activity does not always mean a particular set of exercises for a defined duration. We should indulge in any activity which keeps us sharp and at the same time not lead to too much of exertion.
Step 3: Never underestimate the importance of setting goals and achieving these small milestones. This may range from completing the paragraph that we wanted to write today, to learning a new chord or cooking a new dish. And achievement of these milestones should lead to rewards like an extra helping of dessert or watching a new movie on Netflix.
Health care providers are also constantly evolving and implementing technology to improve patient safety. Some of the measures include, implementation of teleconsultation facility via video conference, developing web applications to track patient records and investigation reports, home collection of blood samples and creating patient pathways to minimize unnecessary contact and ensure seamless and safe health care delivery.
Although a pandemic will lead to major disruption in every aspect of life, it does not necessarily mean that treatment of other diseases like cancer has to come to a standstill. With personalized decision making and implementing technological solutions to overcome conventional challenges, cancer care will continue and patients who are most vulnerable during these times are continued to be cared for.